One of these years, Gary Kubiak is going to hit it big with a tight end.
Not Owen Daniels big, although he was darn good the previous 10 seasons. But real big as in Jason Witten, John Mackey, Mike Ditka big.
The tight end who can do it all. Block, catch and block some more. Kubiak can’t be criticized for not trying. Here are the 14 tight ends – 14! -- the Broncos employed last season, either during training camp, or through their practice squad or 53-man roster during the 2015 football calendar season: Daniels, Virgil Green, Vernon Davis, Jeff Heuerman, Richard Gordon, Dan Light, Arthur Lynch, Mitchell Henry, Dominique Jones, Marcel Jensen, Jake Murphy, Joe Don Duncan, James Casey and Nick Kasa.
They currently have Heuerman, Green, Gordon and Manasseh Garner on their 2016 roster.
No way is that enough. Not for Kubiak’s liking. Heuerman, a third-round pick last year who didn’t practice -- much less play -- as a rookie because of a torn ACL, is the projected starter and Virgil Green is a solid No. 2.
But neither are established pass catchers. Heuerman only had 26 and 17 catches in his final two seasons at Ohio State and Green’s 12 catches last season were the most in his five-year NFL career.
The Broncos could add Garrett Graham, who had 49 catches in 2013 while playing for Kubiak and tight ends coach Brian Pariani in Houston.
But in Kubiak’s zone-blocking, one-cut running system complemented by the play-action pass, the perfect tight end can block as well as he can catch. Daniels fell off as a blocker last year which is why he became the most surprising cut this offseason.
The Broncos drafted Heuerman to be their guy but after he missed his rookie season, will Kubiak want one more? You bet.
Having said that this is not considered a strong draft class of tight ends with no one projected for the first round. Here are some of the top tight ends available in this year’s draft:
1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas, 6-5, 250
He’s No. 1 on almost all lists because he was a true dual tight end for the Razorbacks, staying in to block on play-action passes. He also caught 116 passes for 1,661 yards (14.3 per) in his three seasons.
The pro-style offense he was in has helped his draft stock.
“The college game is turning into a spread-offense game,” Henry said during his NFL Scouting Combine press conference. “Sadly. We were one of the few offenses that were a run-first, pass-second, almost balanced offense. True pro style, I would say. It was a big opportunity for me and all the other tight ends who were with me at Arkansas.’’
2. Austin Hooper, Stanford, 6-4, 254
Stanford runs one of the more pro-style offenses in college football. Hooper had 74 combined catches for 937 yards and eight touchdowns the past two years.
“Based on the offense we come from, it’s hard not to be mentally ready,’’ Hooper said at the combine. “At that point it’ like coming from high school to college and just picking it up. The speed of the game goes up a half a step, the guys are now an inch taller, guys are a little bit heavier. The physical stuff takes a little more time, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be in an offense with other guys that you’re learning complex playbooks with pro-style West Coast terminology that allows you to assimilate a little faster than other rookies.’’
3. Nick Vannett, Ohio State, 6-6, 257
More run blocker than pass catcher. Played behind Heuerman for two years then started last year as a senior.
4. Jerell Adams, South Carolina, 6-5, 247
An incredible athlete. Runs well for his size but needs to add strength. Had 28 catches for 421 yards (15.0) as senior.
5. Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky, 6-6, 249
The Broncos brought him in for a pre-draft visit in late March. Two weeks later he was arrested on a charge of second-degree assault stemming from a beating he delivered to a man outside a Bowling Green, Ky. bar. The victim was left unconscious in the parking lot and as of two days ago was still hospitalized, although he had been upgraded from serious to good condition.
Higbee had 38 catches for 563 yards and 8 touchdowns as a senior but his charges are serious enough so that he could fall from a projected fourth-round pick to out of the draft.
6. Bryce Williams, East Carolina, 6-6, 257
A lean, tall pass catcher who had 58 catches for 583 yards last year as a senior.
7. Henry Krieger Coble, Iowa, 6-3, 249
Didn’t play much until his redshirt senior year and then came on nicely with 35 catches for 403 yards.